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China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft enters Mars orbit ahead of landing rover

February 10, 2021

— China has placed its first spacecraft into orbit around Mars on a mission that will also attempt to land a rover on the planet's surface.

The country's Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which includes an orbiter, lander and rover, ignited its main engine for about 15 minutes on Wednesday (Feb. 10), slowing its approach so it could be captured by Mars' gravity, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said.

The probe entered an initial elliptical orbit, circling Mars between 250 miles and 112,000 miles (400 and 180,000 km) above the surface, with a period of about 10 (Earth) days.

The autonomously-executed feat established China as the sixth government entity to deploy a spacecraft at Mars. The accomplishment came just one day after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) achieved the same with its Hope spacecraft, following past missions by the U.S., Russia, the European Space Agency (ESA) and India.

The Tianwen-1 mission is China's second attempt at orbiting Mars. The country's Yinghuo-1 orbiter was launched with Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011, but its rocket failed before leaving Earth orbit.

Questions to heaven

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft will spend the next few months slowly lowering its orbit, ultimately nearing the Martian surface by as close as 165 miles (265 km) in order to collect high-resolution imagery of its mission's target landing sites in the Utopia Planitia impact basin.

The Tianwen-1 lander and still-to-be-named rover are expected to touchdown in May or June using a combination of an aeroshell, parachute and thruster to slow their descent.

The mission — which gets its name from an ancient Chinese poem that translates to "questions to heaven" — aims to conduct a global survey of Mars, from high on orbit to the ground. The orbiter and rover were designed to conduct investigations about the planet's geological structure, environment and atmosphere.

Among the objectives for the Tianwen-1 mission are to study the characteristics of the Marian soil, map the distribution of subsurface water-ice and collect data about the planet's climate. Seven science instruments are mounted on the orbiter and six are on the six-wheeled rover. The solar-powered rover is designed to operate for 90 Martian days.

Long step forward

Launched on July 23, 2020 from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in China, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft took 202 days to reach Mars.

Four trajectory corrections conducted on Aug. 2, Sept. 20, Oct. 28 and Feb. 5 refined the spacecraft's approach while traversing 295 million miles (475 million km) through deep space. Tianwen-1 was 119 million miles (192 million km) from Earth when it entered Mars orbit.

If the Tianwen-1 lander and rover make it safely down to the surface, China will become only the third nation to land a spacecraft on Mars and the second to rove the surface. To date, the U.S. and Russia have been the only countries to land probes and the U.S. has sent the only rovers. NASA's fifth rover, Perseverance, is scheduled to land in Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18.

"Congratulations to China for the Tianwen-1 mission successfully entering Mars orbit today," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science, wrote on Twitter. "There is much to discover about the mysteries of Mars and we look forward to your contributions!"

The Tianwen-1 orbiter and lander were built by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The mission is managed by the National Space Science Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.


China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft captured this image of Mars prior to entering the planet's orbit. (China National Space Administration)

China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft is photographed by a camera ejected from the probe during its transit from Earth to Mars. (CNSA)

Artist's concept of China's Tianwen-1 Mars mission, including its orbiter, lander and rover. (CNSA/Chinese Academy of Sciences)

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